Railway Signalling and Operations FAQ: Operating Personnel

Railway Signalling and Operations

Operating Personnel

Jon Roma

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In the United States (and, I suppose, Canada), the employees who worked stations, interlocking towers, and similar facilities were represented by the Order of Railroad Telegraphers (ORT) and The terms of employment of station and tower personnel on the railroads of the United States (and I presume Canada) were defined by agreement between the employing railroad and the labor union representing the workers, the Order of Railroad Telegraphers (ORT). One such agreement is formally titled as the "Schedule of Rules and Regulations and Rates of Pay for Positions on the Illinois Central Railroad Company Negotiated with the Order of Railroad Telegraphers". More informally, these rules were known as the schedule or agreement.

The first rule in the agreement usually sets forth the scope of the positions covered: telegraphers, telephone operators, agents (freight and ticket), agent telegraphers, agent telephoners, towermen, levermen, tower and train directors, block operators and staffmen. Subsequent articles in the agreement set forth exceptions (positions not covered by the agreement), rules for promotion, filling vacancies, abolishment of positions, discipline and grievances, hours of service and overtime, and rates of pay.

A variety of positions existed:

The employee who worked day shift at a station and who was principally responsible for the clerical duties thereof and who was responsible for reporting station accounts to the company auditors.
At stations manned more than one shift, the employees who performed the agent's duties during those hours when the agent was off duty were designated as clerk. These positions shared many of the same duties as the agent position, but with less responsibility and authority. In principal stations such as Champaign, several ticket clerks were on duty round the clock but only one man at any station was ever titled agent.
Employees with telegraph duties were designated as operator. This normally consisted of handling train orders, but at agencies, other company business was conducted by telegraph. In some cases, operators handled commercial telegrams for Western Union or the other telegraph companies. Train order operators were subject to the Book of Rules and the federal Hours of Service Act.
Employees who operated an interlocking machine were designated as leverman. These employees were also subject to the Book of Rules and the hours of service law. At busy interlockings (such as at urban terminals), occasionally an additional leverman helper position would be created during busy periods. The leverman helper was subordinate to the leverman and earned less pay. Some railroads used the term train director to refer to the employee with the authority and leverman for the subordinate employee.

Depending on the facility and its respective duties, these titles were often combined in various ways. The first-trick (daytime) shift at a passenger or freight station that served as a train order office would be designated as agent/operator. If second and third-trick (afternoon and night, respectively) assignments existed, they would be designated as operator/clerk. Most small town stations were only manned during the daytime hours and thus employed only one agent/operator position.

Employees at an interlocking tower handling train orders traffic were designated as operator/leverman; employees at points at which train orders were not handled were simply designated as leverman. When station employees controlled an interlocking, the employees were designated as agent/operator/leverman or as operator/leverman/clerk, as the case may be.

There were excepted positions like chief operator or wire chief, the individuals in the main divisional telegraph office who had overall responsibility for the communication facilities on the division. This position, like others in principal passenger and freight facilities, were appointed positions not covered by the ORT agreement. Telegraphers promoted to an excepted position normally retained their seniority and if they left the excepted position (either voluntarily or otherwise), they could exercise his/her seniority in one of the non-excepted positions.

The ORT merged in the Seventies with the Brotherhood of Railroad and Airline Clerks (BRAC), which brought the telegraphers under the same labor organization as the clerks who worked in a non-operating capacity.

Wages varied by location, depending on the duties involved. One can get a good idea of the volume of traffic involved by perusing the list of assignments and rates of pay that appeared in the telegrapher agreement books.

These agreement books are the source of a number of apparent paradoxes. I was at one time surprised to find that the once-busy levermen working at the Champaign interlocking tower at one time paid slightly lower (a few cents an hour) than some of the seemingly-quieter facilities. It eventually occurred to me that the outlying facilities had train order work, whereas Champaign Tower's employees were levermen alone -- train orders to passenger trains were issued from "HA" office in the second floor of the passenger station and division headquarters building; freight trains received their running orders at "W" office in the yard office a mile north. The lower wage at Champaign Tower is explained by the fact that the employees there didn't have to be qualified telegraphers and simply had to pass the Book of Rules and know how to operate the interlocking. When "HA" and "W" offices were closed in the late sixties, Champaign's levermen assignments were re-bulletined as operator/levermen with a boost in pay to cover the additional duties.

These agreement books are an excellent source of information for determining what facilities (such as stations and towers) were in service on the agreement's effective date and, in the case of a tower at the crossing of several railroads, determines which railroad staffed the joint facility.

I mentioned the exercise of seniority. The details varied by agreement but in general they provided that a permanent or temporary vacancy caused by vacation, illness, relocation, retirement, death, etc. would be bulletined (with a solicitation for bids) and would be awarded to the bidding employee holding the most "whiskers" (i. e., the most seniority). The position he vacated would in turn be bulletined in like fashion and so on until everything settled out. A position abolished because of reduction in force, facility closings, reduction to part-time only operation would turn one or more telegraphers loose, which would make them eligible to "bump" any assignment they desired which was held by an employee with a later seniority date. This would, of course, set a chain reaction going with each of the bumped employees eligible to displace another less senior employee. Eventually, someone low enough on the roster would find himself listed as extra board -- without a regular assignment, but available to be called when needed.

When positions are abolished or force reduced, the employee relieved shall have the right within 30 days to displace any junior employee ... or to take his place on the extra list. Any displaced employee [is] to have the same right, and so on until the youngest man on the division is relieved, or displaced men cease to assert the privilege.
Seniority will only be effective when vacancies occur or new positions are created....

This meant a telegrapher couldn't just bump an existing position he coveted -- he had to have been displaced to be eligible to exercise his seniority to claim the position.

Any substantial change in an assignment effectively created a new position that had to be bulletined. For example, the addition of train order duties to Champaign Tower led to the abolishment of the leverman positions and the bulletining of new operator/leverman positions. The fact that the same men as before happened to fill the new assignments was immaterial -- since the job duties and pay scale had changed, this was a new position under the terms of the agreement. Thus, everyone on the roster had an opportunity to bid their seniority on this new assignment.

Since a regular work week consisted of five shifts of eight hours each for each of the three regular employees, there remained six shifts to be filled. Usually five of the six were filled by what was termed as "relief operator", or "relief operator/leverman" as the case may be. Each of the three shifts' scheduled rest days occurred on different days to permit the relief man (usually referred to as "swing man") to work the regular operators' shifts on their off days while still remaining legal in terms of the Hours of Service Act. The remaining shift in the 21-shift work week was either filled off the extra board or was filled by a "long swing" man, one whose work week took him to several locations.

One of my operator friends had a work week that consisted of Friday and Saturday at Gibson City Tower. Gibson City was a leisurely assignment if I ever saw one -- some Saturdays, the entire eight hour trick passed without a single train being entered on the train sheet. Sunday second trick was spent at Champaign Tower, Monday was second trick at Tolono depot (an agency and interlocking), and Tuesday was second trick at "TY" Tower in Tuscola. As one can imagine, plotting out the schedules for the various assignments around the division could get tricky, especially given allowances for mileage driven to/from work and the variety of service hours for the various facilities that needed to be staffed. One small country station around here -- White Heath, Illinois -- had the odd attribute of being a third trick only assignment. The reason was that this lightly-trafficked branch had just a handful of trains that operated in the daytime and they could run as per their timetable authority. But at night, several local freights converged on the area and a train order operator was needed to keep track of things and to get orders from the dispatcher to smooth things out when needed.

Many men bided their time until they could bid first trick and then held on to it five, ten, fifteen years until they retired or until their assignment was abolished. So typically, the first trick would be staffed by the more senior men but in some areas where that was a particularly busy shift, the older men might choose a quieter assignment. Of course, depending on location in a country the size of the U. S., the major waves of freight traffic could come at any time of day.

Other men preferred the second and third tricks because it left them with days free to conduct their own business and one operator explained to me that he preferred working nights because "the trainmaster doesn't usually make surprise visits at 3:30 a.m."

Our operators in contrast to Britain's didn't have gardening or cleaning responsibilities, but some of them occasionally spent a quiet hour washing windows or scrubbing the floors, or polishing the interlocking machine levers. But this was pretty much up to the men themselves; some of them liked a neat environment, while some of them couldn't care less.

In Britain, pay is determined by the class of the signal box (the British term for interlocking tower). Thus, the more senior operators tend to work the signal boxes of higher class. In North America, even though the day man was usually higher in seniority and nominally the one in charge of requisitioning supplies and arranging for minor building repairs and so forth. But it was not typical practice for the first trick operator to have any authority over his second and third trick counterparts.

The exception was for an agency assignment. As noted before, the day man in an agency assignment was the agent and the others were merely clerks. In terms of the station's books and accounts, the agent was the top dog.

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Railroad Books of Rules and Signalling: A Home Page
Operating Personnel

Mark D. Bej, M.D.